Great sports moments in North Carolina history

From a special drawing gallery at the Raleigh News and Observer. I love how the artist captured the empty seatsCanes drawing

Last night the Carolina Hurricanes claimed the Stanley Cup. For some vocal hardcore Caniacs, this victory ranks as the top sports moment of all time in the history of the great state of North Carolina.

I disagree. Yes, this is our first so-called major sports team title, but it comes from the NHL. That’s akin to winning BINGO versus the Powerball. The former only gives you bragging rights at church.

To buttress the point, here’s my rundown of some great professional sports moments in NC history. Notice the key word professional. Prior to the Charlotte Hornets there were no major pro franchises within our borders. We were – and still very much are – a college sports state. Valvano. Dean. Coach K. Those guys and their teams rule our history and hearts.

Thus stipulated, here are my six great NC sports moments:

1996 NFC Divisional Playoffs: Cowboys at Panthers. I was at that game. It was a phenomenal night. Ericsson Stadium was a’rockin and the nation was a’watchin. Not only did the Panthers claim a 26-17 win, but Michael Irvin had his belfry swept and forced to the second half sidelines. He walked it wearing the ugliest damn gold suit man ever made. Classy guy, he.

2003 Super Bowl: Panthers versus New England. I watched that game. My confidence in victory didn’t wane until John Kasay’s drunken kick. I still hang my head at the recollection. But it was a great game and huge leap for professional sports in North Carolina. Plus, App grad and Patriots corner Matt Stevens earned a ring. So it wasn’t all bad.

1993 NBA Playoffs First Round Game Four: Celtics at Charlotte. I listened to that game. I remember the day well. I was lounging on a blanket on the Blue Ridge Parkway, studying for summer school. My car radio was turned up. Steve Martin was calling the game. Time running out. Steve’s call – “Mourning… the shot…. GOOOOD!!” Our first taste of Finals fantasies. Too bad we met Ewing and the Knicks in the next round.

1998 The Winston: I was at that race. The atmosphere was humid with fan fervor. The chicks in the infield wore jeans tighter than Turn 3 (No sport has hotter fans. None). NASCAR enemy numero veinticuatro appeared to have the all-star race won, taking his rainbow into the final lap with a 10-car-length lead. I was atop the press building in the infield. My view of the track’s four corners was obscured. I saw Gordon head into Turn 2 then ….. disappear. He never came out. The crowd of 160,000 roared. Martin hit the Turn and reappeared. Other cars came and went. Martin won the race. Gordon coasted to 12th. He ran out of gas on the final lap. Couldn’t have happened to a more hated guy. Classic NASCAR moment.

1999 US Open at Pinehurst: I remember reading about that win. Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson were co-leaders heading into the back nine. It was Father’s Day. Lefty’s wife was due with child at any moment. Stewart won on a 15-foot putt. He and Phil embraced at the end. Great moment, especially given the sadness four months later. RIP Stewart.

Any card featuring Ric Flair: Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. He’s carried more titles than Borders. He is a North Carolina institution. Wrestling may be staged, but its ratings melt the NHL. I’ve seen Flair in action live several times. His moves are classic, as are his lines. “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” “Space Mountain may bet he oldest ride in park but it’s still got the longest lines.” “Woooooooooooooooooooo.”

I know I’m leaving a lot out. I’m not that old or well traveled. But from my experience, I’ll give the Skaters Formerly Known As The Whalers and their Cup a No. 7 ranking. It’s a great feat, no doubt. But if a team wins a title and few people watch it, does it have an impact?

Tom Sorensen with the Charlotte Observer has similar thoughts and examples, though he includes college feats.

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